The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 177)

First of all, we need to address the extent to which Confucianism is a practical learning, as such a topic has been debated in current scholarship. Confucianism (yugyo; literally meaning “the learning of the literati”) was a common intellectual, ethical, and spiritual tradition in East Asia. Even as a form of “ethical humanism,” “socio-political ideology,” or “secular religion,” we may call it a practically oriented tradition. It maintained its beings through a universal path of learning and self-cultivation, as well as for amount spirit of classical Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism endeavoured to be “practical” as opposed to “theoretical.” But the Confucian tradition, like some other major philosophical or religious traditions of the world, involved a good deal of classical learning, intellectual inquiry, and moral cultivation. Whether the philosophical doctrines and ethical norms of the Cheng-Chu school were “pragmatic” enough from a strict Western standpoint of developing “functional” or “utilitarian” ideas, values, and results is a challenging question that is still open to debate. This question involves the extent to which they fostered economic growth or scientific revolution. It is, indeed, a sophisticated subject to talk about the Neo-Confucian notion of “practical learning.”

On the whole, the entire Confucian tradition offered a rationalistic learning in the context of emphasising the unity of knowledge and action. It was not purely a positive or utilitarian learning, however. In his comparative work on religion and social change, the German sociologist and comparative religionist Max Weber interpreted the negative roles of Confucianism as a fundamental factor in hindering economic development and socio-political modernisation in traditional China. In recent years, East Asian critics analysed Neo-Confucianism in similar ways, arguing that it did not produce any serious interest in economy, science, and technology. Chu Hsi’s Neo-Confucianism addresses the investigation of things and the extension of knowledge, with a strong demand for applying them to self-cultivation and social and political orders. In this regard, we mazy still argue that it was practical and did have its own empirical and scientific dimensions.

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